COLUMN: Surrey’s long-suffering schools

The district needs more capital funds, so it can at least temporarily retire the more than 300 portable classrooms currently in use.

Surrey has a serious school overcrowding problem, but you wouldn’t know it from much of the media coverage about Lower Mainland schools.

A dispassionate observer getting information from the Vancouver-based media would likely come to the conclusion that the biggest school-related challenge in the largest metropolitan area of B.C. is that 13 Vancouver schools may eventually be closed. This is because the provincial government won’t fund seismic upgrades unless school enrolment is at 95 per cent capacity.

Enrolment in Vancouver schools has been falling for decades, and many schools are barely half-full. The Vancouver School Board has vigorously resisted closing any schools for years.

The biggest challenge, as both The Leader and Peace Arch News have reported for many years, is that many Surrey schools are overcrowded. This is due to two key factors – the amount of development taking place in many Surrey neighbourhoods, and the subsequent boost in the population; and the fact that Surrey is home to many  families with children.

Vancouver’s population is growing, but most of that is in the number of adults moving to the city, not kids.

Last week, the NDP’s education critic Rob Fleming was outside Hazelgrove Elementary, one of the most overcrowded Surrey schools, along with fellow NDP MLAs Harry Bains and Sue Hammell, both of whom represent Surrey ridings. The tour was reminiscent of numerous tours over the years by Opposition politicians, highlighting how the government of the day has not built enough schools to keep pace.

This periodic visit to overcrowded schools usually takes place as an election is nearing and goes back to the days of Social Credit governments. Mike Harcourt, when he was NDP Opposition leader in the late 1980s and early 1990s, did such a tour.

The BC Liberals pointed the finger at the NDP government during the 1990s, and in the past 15 years, the NDP has pointed the finger at the B.C. Liberals.

The attention these tours bring to the need for more classrooms is always welcome, but unfortunately it doesn’t usually mean extra funding. While the current government has freed up some funds for schools in Surrey, notably for the building of a new high school in Clayton (construction began last month), there are more projects that need funding.

The school district’s current capital plan has four new schools as its top four priorities. It would like construction of the four to begin in 2018.  Two are elementary schools in Clayton and two are in Grandview Heights in South Surrey.

The district has many more priorities, including additions to existing schools, replacement of older schools and seismic upgrades. Surrey schools have more than 70,000 students and many of its schools are more than 50 years old.

The provincial government has to prioritize calls for new schools across the province. However, other than Surrey, few communities are growing dramatically. There is growth in some areas of Langley and Abbotsford which may require new schools, but in most other school districts, enrolment continues to drop.

The province is right to try to get school districts to utilize schools more fully and shoot for 95 per cent capacity. Schools that are more than half-empty may be best used for other purposes.

In Surrey’s case, the district desperately needs more capital funds for schools, so that it can at least temporarily retire the more than 300 portable classrooms that are currently in use. A commitment to more capital funding in Surrey by the provincial government is long overdue.

Frank Bucholtz writes weekly for The Leader.


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